As the darker evenings draw in, cheer yourself up with a dose of these feel-good foods
Aah, winter. There’s something magical about strolling down a frosty footpath and the warm promise of settling down next to a roaring fire. However, once the winter blues settle in, many of us start to feel the lethargic effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), and need a little pick-me-up. So, how should you go about tackling it? According to professional chef Gabrielle Masefield, it ultimately begins with what you choose to pile on your plate. “Food has a powerful impact on our moods, how we feel, and vice versa,” says Gabrielle. “Everything from the mid-afternoon sugar crash to the more complicated way in which micronutrients trigger certain reactions and hormone responses.” And there’s an ever increasing amount of research showing the relationship between mental health and diet. So, grab a healthy snack, as we recap everything you need to know about how food really can improve your mood.
Just as omega 3 is thought to be beneficial for healthy brain function, so too is it often associated with your mood, particularly when it comes to curbing negative emotions such as stress and anxiety. “Fatty acids, such as omega 3, serve as building blocks for the molecule tryptophan – an amino acid that is important for the production of serotonin” says Gabrielle. “And a vital neurotransmitter associated with happiness that helps to fight depression and reduce anxiety,” she adds.
It’s hardly surprising to learn that oily fish – salmon, mackerel and sardines – are not only bursting with mood-boosting omega 3s, but are also particularly high in vitamin D. As Gabrielle explains: “This is a win-win combination because vitamin D helps neurotransmitters receive more serotonin (the happiness hormone) while omega 3 regulates the conversion of the essential amino acid tryptophan into serotonin, and tryptophan is found in omega 3 fatty acids.” A match made in heaven.
The gut is often referred to as the second brain, and has a huge role to play in how we exhibit our emotions. “Looking into the connection between the brain and gut,” says Gabrielle, “poor gut health and a low population of healthy gut bacteria has been linked to depression.” However, it’s not just a low microbe population that can trigger mental health – an overpopulation of bad bacteria can also influence mood.
To grow a healthy population of gut bacteria, Gabrielle suggests eating a wide range of healthy plant-based foods that possess high levels of insoluble fibre, such as sauerkraut, kimchi and kefir. Probiotic foods like these help to boost the good bacteria in the gut and help with the digestion process. Another gut-health food? Apples. According to research, an apple a day will enhance the diversity of your gut microbiome, and could contain as much as 100 million bacteria. Maybe they do keep the doctor away after all.
According to life coach Marianna Kilbrun (avogel.co.uk), vitamin D is primarily known as a nutrient, but it’s also classified as a hormone. “This makes it pretty unique,” says Marianna, “especially when you consider that, unlike other vitamins and minerals, our primary source of vitamin D is sunlight.” Almost immediately this creates a connection between having low levels of vitamin D and SAD – both occur when our exposure to sunlight is minimal. In fact, here in the UK, it’s thought that as many as 1 in 5 of us could be suffering from low levels of vitamin D – a worrying statistic, especially when you consider the symptoms of vitamin D deficiency: fatigue, poor immunity, joint pain, muscle pain, low mood and poor bone density. “Eating plenty of leafy greens, eggs, mushrooms, tinned tuna, oysters, sardines and tofu will ensure you’re getting enough vitamin D,” says Gabrielle. However, also consider products fortified with vitamin D such as milk, yoghurt and cereals.
Feeling a little blue? A recent study showed that those who eat a diet rich in vegetables are less likely to report feeling depressed. As Gabrielle explains: “Leafy green vegetables such as spinach, and kale are low in calories yet bursting with many key vitamins and minerals, including folate – a B vitamin that affects neurotransmitters which are responsible for your mood.”
If you’re experiencing feelings of depression, it may also be down to elevated levels of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase, resulting in lower levels of serotonin and dopamine. “Eating a diet high in fruits and vegetables can reduce the levels of this enzyme and cut the odds of developing depression by as much as 62 percent.,” says Gabrielle. On a simple, practical level, consuming more fruits and vegetables (at least 7 servings a day) increases feelings of happiness, calm and energy and has positive effects on all areas of health including mood, which may spill over into the next day, too!
Research has shown that a daily one-hour walk in the middle of the day could be as helpful as light treatment for coping with the winter blues. To keep things interesting, try going on an ‘awe walk’ and look out for things to be amazed by.
Go outdoors in natural daylight as much as possible, especially at midday and on brighter days. Inside your home, choose pale colours that reflect light from outside, and sit near windows whenever you can.
See the light
Some people find light therapy effective for seasonal depression. One way to get light therapy at home is to sit in front of a light box for up to two hours a day. Light boxes give out very bright light at least 10 times stronger than ordinary home and office lighting.
Take up a new hobby
Keeping your mind active with a new interest can ward off symptoms of SAD. It could be anything, such as singing, knitting, painting, keeping a mindfulness journal, or writing a blog. The important thing is that you have something to look forward to and concentrate on.
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